It's Saturday morning and the day started quietly - the neighbors calling each other as they went to the Wat, summoned by the booming of the large drum. The monks walked past my house, silently walking in bare feet and carrying their metal begging bowls filled with sticky rice and different kinds of curries.
It's now about 7:30 and the sounds are different - loud music and the whirr of air compressors inflating the bouncy castles. The Si Khai boat races are happening today and by 9 am, the temple yard of Wat Meuang Wa will be filled with people. And at noon, the traditional long boats will be racing.
The tradition of boat racing goes back a long time. During the Buddhist Lent, people are supposed to follow the "Ha Sihn" or the five basic Buddhist precepts more strictly - no alcohol or other drugs, lying, naughty activities, stealing or killing (some people are vegetarian for the three months) - and they should stay close to home and work in the rice fields. While modern life is a little different, the world is quieter during the rainy season; fewer cars on the road and there are only wedding parties if it is essential. At the end of the season, there are many Boun, merit making ceremonies at the temples, which include the above reference temple fair.
And the boat racing. The legend is that the Naga, snake spirits who live in watery areas, also lie low during the rainy season but at the full moon in the tenth month, they are ready to have a little fun. The Naga King had protected the Lord Buddha from a thunderstorm when he was in meditation under the Bodhi Tree and since then, all Naga follow Buddhism. The boat races and special offerings (floating little boats made of banana leaves, filled with flowers, candles and incense) are dedicated to the Naga spirits. And the boat races have a special function - people in villages teams practice during the last month of the rainy season and then compete up and down the river up to the big boat race in Vientiane on the day after the October full moon (that was last Saturday). Not only do villages on the Lao side go back and forth and socialize but teams from across the Mekong river, also compete. In the late 80's, while I was working in a refugee camp in Thailand, I traveled to Nong Khai for the boat races - Laos was just starting to open up after its years of self-imposed isolation so the big thing was seeing the Lao teams competing on the Thai side of the river.
For some reason, the Si Khai races are after the big race in Vientiane. The main race has gotten much more corporate - the teams are not villages but mostly companies. In the past few years, I've skipped the main races but I do like my neighborhood races - they're entirely from villages and the event is smaller and much more fun. Last year, I sat at the finish line with some Lao friends, one of whom was the main sponsor of his village team.
This year, I'm not sure. In a moment, I'll be heading to my office and hopefully will get back for the afternoon activities.